A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, now in Japanese!

 

A Composer's Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips, now on sale in Japanese! Published by O'Reilly Japan.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips, now on sale in Japanese!  Published by O’Reilly Japan.

I’m excited to share that my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, was released today in Japan in its newly-published Japanese-language edition!  O’Reilly Japan has published the Japanese softcover of my book in Japan under the title, “Game Sound Production Guide: Composer Techniques for Interactive Music.”

This is the Japanese cover of the book. In Japanese, A Composer's Guide to Game Music is titled "Game sound production guide - composer techniques for interactive music," by Winifred Phillips.

Side-by-side, these are the covers of the two editions of the book. In Japanese, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music is titled “Game sound production guide – composer techniques for interactive music,” by Winifred Phillips.

I’m very excited that the Japanese language edition of my book has already hit #1 on the “Most Wished For” list on Amazon Japan!

The Amazon Japan "Most Wished For" list.

The “Most Wished For” list on Amazon.co.jp.

Coincidentally, the English-language version of A Composer’s Guide to Game Music is now #1 on the Kindle Top Rated list, too!

The Kindle "Top Rated" list on Amazon.com.

The Kindle “Top Rated” list on Amazon.com.

O’Reilly Japan is located in Tokyo, and is dedicated to translating books about technological innovation for Japanese readers.  They are a division of O’Reilly Media, a California publishing company that acts as “a chronicler and catalyst of leading-edge development, homing in on the technology trends that really matter and galvanizing their adoption by amplifying “faint signals” from the alpha geeks who are creating the future.  O’Reilly publishes definitive books on computer technologies for developers, administrators, and users. Bestselling series include the legendary “animal books,” Missing Manuals, Hacks, and Head First.”

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From what I’ve gathered, my book – A Composer’s Guide to Game Music – is the first English language book about game music to be translated into Japanese and sold in Japan.  There are a few other books available in Japan on the subject – but they were all originally written in Japanese.  These include a book exploring game sound by the audio hardware designer and sound developer Shiomi Toshiyukia text on creating sound for games with the CRI ADX2 middleware by Uchida Tomoya, and a book on producing game music and sound design by the artist “polymoog” of the dance music duo ELEKETL (pictured below, from left to right).

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I’m tremendously excited about the Japanese edition of my book, and my excitement comes in large part from the venerable tradition of outstanding music in Japanese games.  From the most celebrated classic scores of such top game composers as Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros.) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), to the excellent modern scores of such popular composers as Masato Kouda (Monster Hunter) and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Japanese video game composers have set the creative bar very high.  I’m incredibly honored that my book will be read by both established and aspiring game composers in Japan!  I hope they’ll find some helpful information in my book, and I’m excited to contribute to the ongoing conversation about game music in the Japanese development community.

I’ve always loved Japanese game music.  In 2008, I participated in a compilation album in which successful game composers created cover versions of celebrated video game songs from classic games.  The album was called “Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music.”  I chose the music by Koji Kondo from Super Mario Bros., and recorded an a cappella vocal version.  It’s currently available for sale from the Sumthing Else Music Works record label, and can also be downloaded on iTunes.  You can hear the track on YouTube here:

If you’d like to learn more about the rich legacy of game music composition in Japan, you can watch an awesome free documentary series produced by the Red Bull Music Academy, entitled “Diggin’ in the Carts: A Documentary Series About Japanese Video Game Music.”  The series interviews famous game composers of Japan, which means that the interviews and narration are both in Japanese (with English subtitles).  Here’s an episode that focuses on modern accomplishments by Japanese game composers:

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

“Sound is Magic” – Insights for the Game Music Composer

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From May 19th to the 20th of this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Research and Development department presented a two-day conference to explore the future of immersive sound.  Called “Sound: Now and Next,” the event featured a distinguished speaker list that included accomplished audio engineers, producers, educators, inventors, researchers, musicians and composers.  The event offered a wealth of fascinating presentations on the future of audio, and I recommend visiting the site and checking out the awesome video resources from the event, which include complete session videos made freely available for streaming from the site.

For game composers and sound designers, one of the best sessions was presented by Nick Ryan, an award-winning audio engineer/composer/audio consultant who is best known in the game industry for his sound design work on the Papa Sangre, Papa Sangre II and The Nightjar audio games for iOS.  These three games utilize binaural sound to immerse players in an audio-only interactive environment, which Nick Ryan calls “inhabitable audio.”

Nick’s presentation at the “Sound: Now and Next” conference was entitled “Sound is Magic.”  According to Nick, audio has a unique power to bring about an emotional and perceptual impact by virtue of the collaborative relationship between the sound source and the listener.  When a sound is separated from its original source (i.e. when it’s not possible to see the source that’s emitting the sound), listeners will instinctively use their imaginations to supply the nature of the sound’s origin.  This imaginative contribution on the part of listeners has the potential to draw them more fully into the experience.  “I profoundly believe that we are co-authors in everything that we listen to,” Nick tells us.

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Nick Ryan, sound designer for Papa Sangre, Papa Sangre II and The Nightjar

Early in the presentation, Nick introduces us to his initial work in binaural / spatial audio by describing a project he produced in 2002 for BBC Radio 4. “The Dark House” was a popular interactive radio drama: a ghost story recorded on location in a large house.  The actors wore baseball caps with microphones embedded in the brims.  While the project was ostensibly a traditionally linear radio drama, it was structured so that the audience could decide from which character’s perspective the story would be told, and the audio mix would switch to the perspective of the character who had received the most votes.  In this way, the audio mix of the program changed drastically as the audience cast their votes during the broadcast.  The entire program is available for listening here:

Nick stresses that this project illustrates the power of adding interactivity to an audio experience.

Moving on to his work in video game development, Nick launches into a discussion of his work on Papa Sangre, a game set in a completely “non-sighted” realm of the afterlife, inhabited by vicious unseen monsters.  Sharing a few observations about gamers’ experiences in Papa Sangre, Nick points out that visually-impaired players would usually breeze through the game in an hour, whereas sighted players found it to be crushingly difficult.  Also, Nick describes a phenomenon whereby sounds associated with personal movement (such as footsteps) stimulated the motor cortex of the brain to be active, making listeners feel as though they were actually in motion. This motor cortex stimulation contributed to the immersive qualities of the gaming experience in Papa Sangre.  The effects of sound on the brain are tremendously fascinating, and I explored some of the effects of music on brain activity in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music – so I was especially interested to hear more about that phenomenon in Nick’s talk.  To learn more about Nick’s work on Papa Sangre (and another audio-only game titled The Nightjar), check out this sound design mini masterclass that Nick gave for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts:

Continuing with his presentation for the BBC “Sound: Now and Next” conference, Nick described a collaboration with Volkswagen and the famous electronica duo known as Underworld to allow a car to essentially drive a piece of music, associating an interactive musical composition with the turning, braking, acceleration and de-acceleration of the vehicle.  While it isn’t a game-related project, it is fascinating when considered in terms of the interactive music possibilities that could be translated into gaming applications.  Here’s the final video result of “Volkswagen Golf GTI Play the Road.”

And here’s a behind-the-scenes video that explores the making of this interactive music system for driving:

Finally, Nick brings the entire concept of “Sound is Magic” to a culmination by describing his collaboration with John Matthias to create a four movement piece for string orchestra entitled “Cortical Songs.”  A computer simulates the way in which human neurons naturally behave, sending these signals to tiny flashing lights on the music stands of the string players.  The musicians respond to these flashes as they would respond to a conductor issuing cues – as though the simulated neural activity was leading the orchestra.  The magic of the human mind is now expressed through sound, expressing Nick’s concept of Sonification — the aural expression of silent phenomena.  Here is an excerpt from a performance of the composition:

The “Sound: Now and Next” conference offered an abundance of inspiring ideas from top practitioners in their fields, and I urge everyone to check out the site and see some of the other presentations that are available online.  Also, be sure to check out the complete presentation given by Nick Ryan — “Sound is Magic.”

 

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Total War Battles: Kingdom

Total War Battles Kingdom - Winifred Phillips

Winifred Phillips won 2 Global Music Award Gold Medals for the music she composed for Total War Battles: Kingdom.

I’m happy to announce that one of my latest projects is Total War Battles: Kingdom, developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. I was happy to join the music composition team for this fantastic project! Along with my long-time music producer Winnie Waldron, I worked with Creative Assembly’s audio manager Richard Beddow to compose atmospheric medieval-inspired music for this awesome upcoming strategy game.

I’m also very happy to share that my music for Total War Battles: Kingdom has already been recognized with two Gold Medals from the Global Music Awards!  My music producer Winnie Waldron and I received a Gold Medal in the category of Game Music, and I received an additional Gold Medal in the category of Composition/Composer.

I won the two Global Music Awards Gold Medals for “Dark Ages” – a track I composed for Total War Battles: Kingdom.  I was hired by Creative Assembly to join a team of composers who each worked separately to compose their own tracks for the game. Each composer brought unique strengths to the project, and I was proud to work with my award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron to compose my own tracks for this terrific game!

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Two Global Music Award Gold Medals recognizing music composed by Winifred Phillips & produced by Winnie Waldron for the game Total War Battles: Kingdom.

 

Here is a YouTube video containing my award-winning music from Total War Battles: Kingdom:

Total War Battles: Kingdom is the latest game in the popular, multi-million-selling Total War franchise. Now in its 15th year, Total War is one of the most famous and critically-acclaimed series in gaming!  Here’s some info about the Total War franchise:

A drive for historical authenticity and superb gaming quality has helped establish the franchise as one of the most successful games of all time. The Total War franchise has won numerous awards, including two BAFTA Awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and an Ivor Novello Award. The video game franchise was also the basis of two television shows: Decisive Battles on the History Channel, and Time Commanders on the BBC. Alongside the core historical-based games, the Total War series has expanded to include the mobile title, Total War Battles: Kingdom.

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My music for Total War Battles: Kingdom was performed by a live ensemble comprised of some of the best and most accomplished musicians performing with historically authentic medieval instruments and techniques. The ensemble includes one of Europe’s top lute players, and members of this ensemble have graced the concert stages of such venues as the Royal Opera House, The Royal Festival Hall, and Kensington Palace, among many others. For Total War Battles: Kingdom, I combined evocative aural designs with a consort of period instruments and medieval modes. I used these techniques to transport listeners into the mysterious world of the Dark Ages. Here are the musicians who performed my music for Total War Battles: Kingdom:

Musicians:

  • Lute: Elizabeth Kenny
  • Recorders, Fife, Flute: Chloe Lochbaum
  • Vielle, Hurdy Gurdy: Sylvia Hallett
  • Hurdy Gurdy: Sue Eaton
  • Mandola: Andy Reynolds
  • Celtic Harp: Heather Wrighton
  • Cello: Richard Harwood
TWBK-Musicians

From left to right: Elizabeth Kenny (Lute), Richard Harwood (Cello), Sylvia Hallett (Hurdy Gurdy), and Heather Wrighton (Harp)

Here’s some more information about the game:

Creative Assembly’s Total War Battles: Kingdom is set during the chaotic turn of the 10th Century, as the world starts to emerge from the Dark Ages. Players will find themselves managing the needs of their own fiefdom and guarding against the machinations of neighboring kingdoms. Deception, spying and outright betrayal against enemies and friends alike will see the devious player rewarded. “We wanted to create a new way of playing Total War Battles. Whether that’s on the move or at work over lunch,” said Renaud Charpentier, Creative Assembly Digital Project Lead. “It shouldn’t matter where you want to play; we want to make it easy to come back again and again to your flourishing Kingdom. Then, we ramp up the complexity and challenge, adding more options to your Machiavellian schemes.”

Founded in 1987, Creative Assembly is one of the UK’s most successful and established game studios. Creator of the multi award-winning Total War strategy series, the studio has received numerous press, industry and consumer accolades, including BAFTAs and the Develop Industry Excellence awards.  Home to over 325 highly talented developers and counting, the studio continues to expand to cover a variety of triple-A console, PC and mobile projects.

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Virtual Reality in the Uncanny Aural Valley

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Most visual artists in the game industry are familiar with a concept known as the “Uncanny Valley,” but it isn’t a problem that typically occupies the attention of sound designers and game music composers.  However, with the imminent arrival of virtual reality, that situation may drastically change.  Audio folks may have to begin wrestling with the problem right alongside their visual arts counterparts. I’ll explore that issue during the course of this blog, but first let’s start with a basic definition: what is the Uncanny Valley?

Here’s the graphic that is typically shown to illustrate the Uncanny Valley concept.  The idea is this: human physical attributes can be endearing.  We like human qualities when we see them attached to inhuman things like robots.  It makes them cute and relatable. However, as they start getting more and more human in appearance, the cuteness starts going away, and the skin-crawling creepiness begins.  The ick-factor reaches maximum in an amorphous no-man’s land right before absolute realism would theoretically be attained.  In this realm of horrors known as the “Uncanny Valley,” we see that the appearance of the human-like creature is not close enough to be real, but close enough to be really disturbing.  Don’t take my word for it, though.  Here’s a great video from the Extra Credits video series that explores the meaning of the Uncanny Valley in more detail:

So, now we’ve explored what the Uncanny Valley means to visual artists, but how does this phenomenon impact the realm of audio?

Spatial Audio – Reconstructing Reality or Creating Illusion?

The idea of an audio equivalent for the Uncanny Valley was suggested by Francis Rumsey during a presentation he gave in May 2014 at the Audio Engineering Society Chicago Section Meeting, which took place at Shure Incorporated in Niles, Illinois.  Francis Rumsey holds a PhD in Audio Engineering from the University of Surrey and is currently the chair of the Technical Council of the Audio Engineering Society.  His talk was entitled “Spatial Audio – Reconstructing Reality or Creating Illusion?”

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Francis Rumsey, chair of the AES Technical Council

In his excellent 90 minute presentation (available for viewing in its entirety by AES members), Francis Rumsey explores the history of spatial audio in detail, examining the long-term effort to reach perfect simulations of natural acoustic spaces.  He examines the divergent philosophies of top audio engineers who approach the problem from a creative/artistic point of view, and acousticians who want to solve the dilemma mathematically by virtue of a perfect wave field synthesis technique. Along the way, he asks if spatial audio is really meant to recreate the best version of reality, or instead to conjure up an entertaining artistic illusion?  This leads him to the main thesis of his talk:

Sound Design in VR: Almost Perfect Isn’t Perfect Enough

Rumsey suggests that as spatial audio approaches the top-most levels of realism, it begins to stimulate a more critical part of the brain.  Why does it do this?  Because human listeners react very strongly to a quality we call “naturalness.”  We have a great depth of experience in the way environmental sound behaves in the world.  We know how it reflects and reverberates, how objects may obstruct the sound or change its perceived timbre. As a simulated aural environment approaches perfect spatial realism and timbral fidelity, our brains begin to compare the simulation to our own remembered experiences of real audio environments, and we start to react negatively to subtle defects in an otherwise perfect simulation.  “It sounds almost real,” we think, “but something about it is strange.  It’s just wrong, it doesn’t add up.”

Take as an example this Oculus VR video demonstrating GenAudio’s AstoundSound 3D RTI positional 3D audio plugin.  While the audio positioning is awesome and impressive, the demo does not incorporate any obstruction or occlusion effects (as the plugin makers readily admit).  This makes the demo useful for us in examining the effects of subtle imperfections in an otherwise convincing 3D aural environment.  The imperfections become especially pronounced when the gamer walks into the Tuscan house, but the sound of the outdoor fountain continues without any of the muffling obstruction effects one would expect to hear in those circumstances.

Voice in VR: The Uncanny Valley of Spatial Voice

During the presentation, Rumsey shared some of the research from Glenn Dickins, the Technical Architect of the Convergence Team at Dolby Laboratories.  Dickins had applied the theory of the Uncanny Valley to vocal recordings. The sound of the human voice in a spatial environment is exceedingly familiar to us as human beings, much in the same way that human appearance and movement are both ingrained in our consciousness.  Because of this familiarity, vocal recordings in a spatial environment such as 3D positional audio can be particularly vulnerable to the Uncanny Valley effect.  Very small and subtle degradation in the audio output of a spatially localized voice recording may trigger a sense of deep-rooted unease.

Glenn Dickins of Dolby Laboratories

Glenn Dickins of Dolby Laboratories

As we embark on three dimensional audio environments for virtual reality games, the sorts of sound compression typically used in video game design may become problematic, particularly in relation to voice recordings in games.  While a typical gamer might not recognize that a vocal recording had been compressed, the gamer might nevertheless feel that there was something “not quite right” in the sound of the character’s voices.  Compression of audio subtly changes the vocal sound in ways that are usually unnoticeable, but may become disruptive in a VR aural environment in which imperfections have the potential to nudge the audio into the Uncanny Valley.

Music in VR: Some Good News

While I’ve talked in this blog before about the importance of defining the role that music should play in the three-dimensional aural environment of a virtual reality game, Francis Rumsey offers an entirely different viewpoint in his talk.  He thinks that when it comes to music, listeners don’t really care about spatial audio.  That might be good news for game composers, because this may mean that music may play no role in the Uncanny Valley effect.

Describing a study that was conducted to determine how both naive and experienced listeners perceived spatial audio, Rumsey showed that when it came to listening to music, the spatial positioning wasn’t considered tremendously important.  Sound quality was held to be absolutely crucial, but this desire was neither heightened nor lessened by spatial considerations. So does this mean that when it comes to music, listeners have an enhanced suspension of disbelief?  Are they willing to accept music into their VR world, even if it isn’t realistically positioned within the 3D space?  If so, then this would mean that non-diegetic music (i.e. music that isn’t occurring within the fictional world of the game) may not need to be spatially positioned as carefully as either voice or sound design elements of the aural environment.  This may prove useful to audio teams, who may turn to music as a reassuring agent in the soundscape, binding the aural environment together and promoting emotional investment and immersion.  However, music’s role in virtual reality may not conform to the way in which listeners react to spatially positioned music in other situations.  At any rate, the issue certainly needs further study and experimentation to clarify the role that non-diegetic music should play in a VR game.

For other types of music in VR, the situation may be much simpler.  Music doesn’t always have to occupy the traditional “underscore” role that it typically serves during gameplay.  In a “music visualizer” VR experience, spatial positioning may become entirely unnecessary, because the music is serving the purpose of pure foreground entertainment (much the same way that music entertains listeners on its own).  Here’s a preview of a musically-reactive virtual world in the upcoming “music visualizer” game Harmonix Music VR, created by the developer of the famous and popular game series Rock Band and Dance Central:

In Conclusion

Rumsey concluded his talk with the observation that near accurate may be worse than not particularly accurate… in other words, if it’s supposed to sound real, then it had better sound perfectly real.  Otherwise, it might be better to opt for a stylized audio environment that exaggerates and heightens the world rather than faithfully reproducing it.  I hope you enjoyed this blog, and please let me know what you think in the comments below!
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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.